Both septic tanks and cesspools are systems designed for waste management. So what is the difference between a cesspool vs a septic tank?
They both are built to receive and hold sewage when the connection to a centralized municipal sewer service isn’t practical or available.
However, if you’re looking for a non-traditional solution for your sewage, you may not know which is better.
The quick and easy answer is a septic tank, but here’s what you should know about each of the options and the differences between them.
1. Why choose between a cesspool vs septic tank?
If you’re building a new home in a rural area, you may not have the option to connect to the city sewer system.
This means you’ll need to utilize either a cesspool or septic tank.
If you’re moving into a house with a cesspool, make sure you check your local regulations.
In some areas, towns will require you to replace your cesspool with a septic tank, effectively making the decision for you.
However, if you have the choice, then you’ll want to understand how each function and weigh the pros and cons.
Both options require maintenance, and you’ll want to do right by the environment with proper upkeep.
2. What is a septic tank?
Septic tanks are a great solution when you aren’t able to connect to a municipal sewer system.
They only release liquid wastewater — not scum and liquid wastewater.
Bacteria live in the septic tank and help to break down the scum.
The liquid wastewater is discharged into an absorption field which helps to purify the liquid wastewater before it goes into the ground (where it gets further purification).
3. What is a cesspool?
A cesspool is a hole in the ground where waste and filth collect.
It’s essentially a sealed pit made of brick or concrete that’s buried under the ground.
To access it, you must use a manhole.
Both scum and liquid waste will flow down into the soil that immediately surrounds the hole.
Cesspools can make it difficult for the soil to purify water in the same way it does with septic tanks.
Additionally, if sludge and leftover waste pile up, it can block the drainage holes.
You probably won’t enjoy the sight or sound of what appears because of this blockage.
If you’re able to avoid this, you may run into the common issue where the soil isn’t able to absorb more waste.
In these cases, it bubbles to the surface.
If you’re wondering if cesspools are good for the environment, the answer is no.
Having your waste seep into the ground isn’t a good solution.
However, there are still old cesspools that exist on properties, which makes them worth understanding.
It’s common to see them replaced by septic tanks.
4. Which is the winner: cesspool vs septic tank?
If you’re looking for a quick and easy answer to the question, the septic tank is better in numerous ways.
Septic tanks are better at doing what cesspools could do but don’t.
Cesspools don’t treat waste or wastewater from a house.
They are simply a nearby storage location for waste until it’s collected and treated by a professional cesspool or septic pumping company.
When this treatment occurs, it must be pumped out of the pit.
5. What is the primary difference between a septic tank and a cesspool?
The main difference between these two is that a septic tank treats liquid waste and filters it back into the ground.
Septic tanks and cesspools are supposed to serve the same basic function, but they don’t.
There are several key differences in the way these systems work.
The septic tank is designed to receive the waste from a home and break it down.
It separates it into a heavy sludge material that must be pumped out of the tank as well as effluent and wastewater that’s released into a leach field.
This field helps improve the breakdown of effluent material.
On the contrary, a cesspool is simply a collection tank.
It’s like a collection bin that must be regularly pumped to prevent overflow and sewage backup because the soil simply cannot hold it all.
If you don’t do this frequent maintenance, then you’ll start to see sewage bubbling up, which is unsanitary.
For this reason, septic tanks are the more popular options for households that must treat and store waste but don’t have access to a sewer system.
6. Should you buy a house with a cesspool?
If you’ve come across a house with a cesspool, you may wonder if it’s worth the investment.
Especially if you’re unfamiliar with the system, it’s hard to know if it’s a downgrade or if it’s just a different option that you could successfully learn how to maintain as a homeowner.
Here are the facts.
If you’re looking at a house with a cesspool, it’s likely in a rural area without access to a municipal sewer system.
Other homes in your area may have septic tanks or cesspools as well.
With that, a cesspool doesn’t filter wastewater into a drainage field like a septic tank.
Instead, it holds it until the waste is pumped every six weeks to ensure the containment chamber doesn’t overflow or back up into home plumbing.
While it’s okay to consider a home with a cesspool, you must be on top of maintenance and willing to pay maintenance costs.
Many homeowners don’t want this type of responsibility.
7. Is it safe to open a cesspool?
It isn’t advised to open a cesspool without proper training and protection.
Everything that goes down the drain of toilets, showers, tubs, sinks, washers, and dishwashers will drain into your cesspool.
Here, waste, shampoo, grease, and cleaning solutions mix and create potentially hazardous gases, so you must be cautious when you open them.
8. How often should a cesspool vs septic tank be pumped?
Six weeks is a guideline that many people use for cesspool pumping.
However, there are quite a few other factors that can impact how often it should be pumped.
These factors include…
The size of your property
The number of occupants
The size of the cesspool
Some cesspools require more maintenance than others, and it’s important to understand when your cesspool tank is almost full.
There are high-level float alarms that you can install to help alert you about the level of the tank.
Here are some other signs you can look out for…
The water from sinks, showers, and bathtubs is draining slowly
Water from the cesspool is backing up into your property
There is a gurgling noise in your plumbing pipework after draining water
There is standing water near the cesspool
There is a bad odor coming from your cesspool
On the other hand, a septic tank requires emptying less often because a licensed waste disposal company is only removing the build-up of sludge.
The timeline for emptying the septic tank will be roughly every 3-5 years depending on the number of people living, working, or visiting the property.
9. How long does a cesspool vs septic tank last?
A cesspool that’s well-maintained can last up to 90 years.
That said, if you’re not cleaning and emptying your cesspool regularly, this will affect the quality of your tank.
Even solid systems won’t last their designed life if they’re not properly maintained.
A septic tank can also last up to 90 years depending on the material used to manufacture the system.
Here’s the breakdown of lifespan depending on the materials used to construct the tank:
Steel: 15 to 20 years
Concrete: 30 to 40 years
Polyethylene: 20 to 30 years
Glass reinforced plastic: up to 90 years
Its lifespan also depends on optimal ground conditions and regular maintenance.
10. What type of cesspool maintenance should I do as a homeowner?
If you’re worried about your ability to care for a cesspool, use the following maintenance checklist.
Protect the cesspool from being crushed
You can crush your cesspool – whether it’s concrete, cement block, or brick with pipes — by simply driving over it.
Avoid moving any type of heavyweight vehicle over the walls or roof of the cesspool because this can result in the release of raw sewage in your yard.
Having to repair this damage will end up being costly.
Test the septic waste levels
Clogging and overflowing are one of the main issues that arise with cesspools.
You can either get a monitor to measure the level or keep an eye out for the common signs of a full tank (listed above).
Any leak that occurs — whether a faucet, toilet, or other fixture — fix it as quickly as possible because the excess water can cause backup and slow draining.
If it goes on for a prolonged period, it can even fill up your cesspool.
This can cause you to need your cesspool pumped prematurely.
Be thoughtful of what items you’re putting down your drain
Certain items can be harmful to your drains, pipes, and cesspool.
You want to avoid putting anything down the drain that will clog it up with solid waste.
Some examples of items that a cesspool cannot handle include grease, oil, coffee grounds, baby wipes, and other solids.
Additionally, although it sounds like a good idea, it’s best not to use a garbage disposal when you have a cesspool.
Protect your cesspool from rainwater
Rainwater can overflow into a cesspool and fill it up, which will accelerate the need for pumping.
While installing your cesspool, make sure that it isn’t at the bottom of a hill so that rainwater flows directly into it.
Additionally, if it’s already installed, check that gutters and drainpipes aren’t flowing into it either.
If you’re deciding where to put a cesspool, it’s best to put one on level ground or where rainwater flows away from the cesspool.
11. How do you know if you have a cesspool on your property?
Cesspools were commonly installed in homes built before 1970.
If you’re purchasing a home newer than that, it’s unlikely to have a cesspool.
If you’re not sure about the age of your home or whether you may have a cesspit or drain field, check the certificate of location.
12. Why are cesspools banned?
Cesspools that aren’t connected to a septic tank are considered a significant risk to the environment.
They clog very quickly and do not treat wastewater.
They simply serve as a holding tank for the waste, and in many cases, this waste will get deposited and absorbed in the soil.
Some cesspools are connected to septic tanks to treat the wastewater before it’s discharged into the sump.
However, this absorption area is limited.
Black sludge also accumulated very quickly in these cases.
13. How do you know if you have a failed cesspool?
There are several common signs of a non-properly functioning cesspool…
The sump is full and can no longer hold the wastewater
The pit has contaminated a stream, wetland, or drinking water well
The liquid level in the septic tank is higher than the drain pipe connected to the cesspool
The bottom of the sump sinks lower than the water table, resulting in direct contact of the sump effluent with the groundwater (this is very dangerous!)
If you suspect you have a failed cesspool, you should act immediately.
This failure can pollute the environment and lead to the proliferation of disease-causing pathogens.
If you’re considering a property with a cesspool, this feature doesn’t necessarily mean that the land is a bad investment.
It does mean that you should consider the maintenance involved with a cesspool as well as the need to upgrade to a septic tank.
Still, there’s no argument that a septic tank wins in the cesspool vs septic tank argument.
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